Today is Martin Scorsese’s birthday and I’m celebrating with a hot take. Scorsese is no stranger to pissing off the masses, whether it’s the Catholic church in reaction to The Last Temptation of Christ, or diehard Marvel fans in regards to him existing as a person. (He leads, I follow.) So I’ll say this straight up: Silence, out of a legendary body of work, just might be Scorsese’s best movie.
A few years ago, I gave up on discussions of “best films” because “best” comes pre-loaded with everyone else’s expectation and input. Too often we mean “personal favorite,” which is why I put out year-end favorite films lists instead. But if were to reignite the “best film” debate, I’d do it for my liege.
Now, you might have your own contender for Marty’s best, and you know what, you’re probably right. It ought to be Taxi Driver, Raging Bull, Goodfellas – all of which make the list for me as it does for you.
A movie like Silence, however, is the culmination of one long conversation he’s been having this whole time on themes of faith, guilt, virtue, and forgiveness.
Scorsese’s films deal with religion in some way – a through-line from Mean Streets all the way to The Departed. In Casino, Ace Rothstein likens the money-hungry city of Vegas as a “morality car wash” where you wash away your sins. In The Irishman, Robert De Niro and Joe Pesci’s characters partake in communion at two pivotal bookends of the story.
Scorsese dealt exclusively with religion in The Last Temptation of Christ and it pissed off a lot of people. It’s hard to get viewers to see past the iconography of Christ on the cross. Because we all have our own interpretation of the crucifixion story, so a rendering like Scorsese’s was, for many, like being told this is how it was.
Silence probes the same themes as Last Temptation, but it allowed him to go around the religious iconography that frankly triggers a lot of people, and thus he was able to dive deeper into the nature of belief. And to this day, Silence remains criminally underseen.
The film charts the story of two Jesuit priests, Father Rodrigues (Andrew Garfield, his best performance btw) and Father Garupe (Adam Driver), who travel to Shogun-era Japan on a mission to spread the gospel, as Jesus himself said. But they come during a time of widespread religious persecution as the shogunate seek to eradicate Christianity from the land and maintain Buddhism as the sole religion.
I must warn, Silence is NOT for the faint of heart. It asks extreme questions about faith and wrestles with the discussion in the utmost of extremes. Japanese converts are submitted to torture to test and ultimately renounce their faith. The movie opens with scalding hot water being poured on a priest – a cruel twist on baptism. Later, Christian followers drown in the rising ocean while tied bare to a cross. Others are burned alive, many more left to starve. Both Father Rodrigues and Father Garupe watch helplessly as followers plea to God in their agony, and He does not intervene. It’s frequently hard to watch. I have yet to see Silence without pausing the movie a few times. There are profound moments in between, too, that absolutely devastate me.
Scorsese is known for his more talk-y gangster pictures. Silence isn’t just his mode as filmmaker this time around; the movie functions like an extended silent prayer. The experience of it is like being locked in a church, by yourself, and questioning where everything is and why.
If God loves us equally as his children, then why does it seem like he values some lives over others? If Christianity is preached as “the universal truth,” then why are so many faiths in contention all over—especially when the conquering shoguns seem to be winning their mission over the Jesuit priests themselves? And – in what is Scorsese’s most powerful query on the subject – why do we need to give up our faith sometimes in order to understand the breadth of our devotion?
It’s a film full of paradoxes that enriches Scorsese’s prior conversations with belief like never before. Rodrigues is forced to confront his own unshakable faith and whether he’s righteous for holding out against the shogunate because God instructs he do so, or because of his own selfish pride.
Silence was my spiritual confrontation; it made me realize I wasn’t an atheist after all. In truth, I just hated going to church. Not believing in God and not believing in the church are two different things. I grew up being told God exists, that going to church was my duty, and later, that I had to serve as an acolyte. I was following in the footsteps of relatives who did as they were told to do by their parents and so on.
It felt like I was shouldered with a burden I never asked for and I hated it. I hated the robes, the retreats, the sermons. This is all totally separate from believing in God, mind you, but I didn’t know any better at the time. I thought it all meant the same thing—that if I didn’t love the church, then maybe I wasn’t a believer.
When I spoke to my parish’s priest, he surprisingly didn’t lock me in a room to say Hail Marys until kingdom come. He listened, and later, he spoke to my family for me. And my parents listened because it’s easier listening to a priest than an ungrateful son. He told me I didn’t have to go to church if I didn’t feel like it, that no one should, and it was like being let go from prison at age 13.
For a time, I went through a cool rebellious phase where I mocked those who gave up their Sundays to be bored to death by speeches on the pulpit. I was being a hypocrite. Because even though I said I didn’t believe in God, I still said prayers every so often. I still do.
I pray for a daughter I only get to see for half the week. I pray for a sister who lives across the country. I pray for a grandmother who lives even further away, is too often by herself, and whom I haven’t seen in over a decade. There’s something about the solitude of prayer that makes me feel like I’m reaching out to loved ones somehow. It was something I learned to cultivate on my own. These prayers aren’t anything unique or original either. I do the sign and I end with amen. Even I had to begrudgingly admit that some things about the church stuck.
The trajectory of my faith is… complicated. I used to think it was a matter of routine and finding proof of the Lord’s existence daily. That’s the thing I got wrong about religion. I thought you needed the church, the pews, and boisterous passion to be a true believer. Silence reminded me that there is no “one” or “right” way to believe.
Rodrigues learns the humility of his own unwavering faith. I learned that I can still believe without serving as an altar boy or having perfect attendance at Sunday mass. Maybe this makes me a non-believer in the eyes of the devout. So be it.
As Rodrigues discovers the through the crucible of his journey, faith can take on many forms. It can fill a church. It can be as resolute as the cross. Or it can be about the stillness and solitude of a nightly prayer.
I LOVE later-stage director work. When filmmakers dispense with their stylistic trademarks and become contemplative, meditative in their storytelling. Like Spielberg doing Schindler’s List or Munich. Once they stop moving the camera or trying to achieve those showy long stakes, and the camera instead sticks around long enough for us to see. Sometimes unflinchingly, painfully. It’s what Scorsese implores us to do with Silence.
Silence is his most personal movie, made across a decade of deeply personal movies like Hugo and The Irishman. (He had a BIG Akira Kurosawa itch to scratch with this one in particular.) Perhaps that’s it; Silence is his “passion project” over him at his best, and the debate goes on. In any case, that’s why I put a question mark in the title.
Time is the determiner of all things, so I don’t know if this will hold up 5 or 10 years down the line. All I know is that this is what I felt when I saw Silence for the first time, and it’s what I continue to feel every time I re-watch it. This is his masterpiece. You only get one, and that’s why the “one great film” debate for every filmmaker rages on. Silence gets my vote for the legendary Martin Scorsese.
Happy Birthday 👑